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BERLIN – The flood disaster in Germany poses a double challenge for Armin Laschet, the pioneer in the race to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.
As the leader of one of the regional states hardest hit by the floods, Laschet is being tested as a crisis manager and faces scrutiny over his stance on climate change.
His position as prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia placed him front and center in the disaster response, particularly since Merkel was out of the country on a visit to the United States when the floods struck.
Laschet, the Christian Democratic rulers’ candidate to replace Merkel after the September general elections, canceled a trip to Bavaria and headed to the provincial city of Hagen, where flooding caused significant damage.
“A crisis is always a moment for the executive,” said Julius van de Laar, a political campaign strategist. “Thus, the way in which Laschet acted on Thursday, canceling his trip to Bavaria and positioning himself as a crisis manager and part of the executive, was the only correct thing.”
But Laschet’s prominent role in responding to the disaster also meant that he faced questions about his climate record.
While acknowledging that man-made climate change increases the frequency of severe weather events, Laschet, who has been criticized by political opponents for half-hearted climate policies, said Thursday that the catastrophe was not a reason per se to advance the date of removal of coal in Germany.
“You don’t change politics just because we now have a day like this,” he said. He said a journalist in a television interview.
While Laschet’s party has gone ahead with measures to mitigate climate change and invest in clean energy technologies, he himself warned that green measures must not harm Germany’s major industries.
That’s important in the context of the package of measures proposed by the European Commission this week that includes an imminent de facto ban on the internal combustion engine, a move opposed by a large chunk of Germany’s auto industry.
And Laschet is well aware that a chancellor’s response to such a disaster can be decisive for his fortune.
In the run-up to the 2002 elections, the current Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder waded through the mud in the town of Grimma after severe flooding in eastern Saxony. Images are now considered a critical factor in his eventual victory against Bavarian conservative Edmund Stoiber in that year’s vote.
More recently, then-Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer regained an absolute majority for his Conservative party in the 2013 regional elections, four months after running in the city of Passau, which had then experienced the most devastating flood in five centuries.
On Friday, Seehofer, now the federal interior minister, said Der sppiegel that “no one can seriously doubt that this catastrophe is related to climate change”, and called for measures to combat climate change both in Germany and throughout Europe to be accelerated.
Meanwhile, the Greens, who rank second in opinion polls behind the Christian Democrats, have faced a challenge of their own in responding to the disaster. Climate change is the central theme of the party, but turning political amid a national tragedy carries risks.
The party’s chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock, hit by accusations of plagiarism and resume inflation in recent weeks, initially limited her interventions to social media, rather than rushing to the flood site on Thursday. She eventually traveled to the region on Friday.
His party co-leader Robert Habeck also addressed the disaster, but decided to stay away. In the midst of a week-long campaign in his home state of Schleswig-Holstein when the news broke, Habeck said Thursday that he felt he should leave scene visits to those with a direct role to play.
“It would just be a politician who gets in the way and somehow wants to be in the picture,” he told supporters at a campaign event in the northern city of Kiel on Thursday night.
He cautioned against knee-jerk political reactions to the crisis, saying it is too simplistic and too early to talk about flooding as a direct consequence of climate change: “This catastrophe, which for many people is an environmental catastrophe, is already being interpreted politically,” he said.
But putting the situation in context is important, Habeck added: Extreme weather events like these occur more frequently and become more severe, as time runs out to address the problem.
“A singular occurrence is a singular occurrence, and it certainly has many causes and reasons,” he said. But “the complexity and frequency of singular events is a strong indication that something is changing … the number of natural disasters is growing, and we will have to have more of them.”
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Other Greens have already been criticized for making it political too soon.
On Thursday night, the vice president of the Greens parliament, Konstantin von Notz, had to apologize for using the crisis to highlight the transport policies of his rivals on social media.
“This situation is not at all suitable for controversial tweets,” von Notz. tweeted in an apology.
According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls election tracker, the gap between Christian Democrats and Greens is widening. The latest aggregate figures put the Conservatives at 29 percent, the Greens at 18 percent and the Social Democrats at 16 percent.
But the situation in western Germany should divert attention to the core messages of the Greens.
“After weeks of scandals … this could be an opportunity to paint a new image,” van de Laar said of Baerbock’s position. “At the same time, however, the Greens must be very careful not to appear to be exploiting the misery of the people.”
Meanwhile, Alice Weidel, co-director of the far-right Alternative for Germany, warned against any attempts to push for new environmental policies.
“Demanding greater ‘speed in climate protection’ on the back of the victims is disrespectful,” he said. tweeted.
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